A screenshot of the WikiTrust tool in
action, from a presentation given at
the 2009 Wikimania conference.

Will Color-Coding Wikipedia Make It a Trustworthy Source?

September 02, 2009 07:00 AM
by Haley A. Lovett
In its ongoing struggle to balance giving users unrestricted editing privileges with its desire to be a credible source of information, Wikipedia is testing out color-coding questionable encyclopedia content.

WikiTrust Color-Coding Follows Other Attempts to Gain Credibility

This week, news broke that Wikipedia may soon offer a tool to help users identify what information on the encyclopedia is generally accepted as correct, and what information should be considered suspect.

The tool, called WikiTrust, would highlight certain phrases in a Wikipedia entry that had yet to withstand the test of time or editorial scrutiny. Phrases would be highlighted according to how reliable they are thought to be, based on length of time on the site and the reputation of the information’s editor; a darker highlight would mean it’s less reliable. According to Wired Magazine, the idea is that the longer a piece of content is allowed to stay on an entry in Wikipedia without being deleted or changed by another user, the more likely that content is to be correct. The WikiTrust feature would have to make it through beta testing by the Wikipedia community before it was pushed live on the entire site.

The academic community has long debated whether Wikipedia, a wiki site that allows its users to edit encyclopedia entries, is a reliable source of information. Acts of vandalism and misinformation on the site are not uncommon, and the site is so widely used—it has even been credited with causing MSN Encarta’s demise—that bad entries have infamously made their way into the mainstream. Such was the case with a fake quote entered on Maurice Jarre’s Wikipedia page that worked its way into obituaries around the world.

But attempts by the Wikimedia organization, the parent group of, to limit these incidents by making the wiki more exclusive are often met with criticism, as users claim that denying open access to the wiki defies its original mission of being an encyclopedia that “anyone can edit.”

Is Wikipedia Really the “Encyclopedia Anyone Can Edit”?

Last month, in an attempt to prevent users from putting up false information about a living person, Wikipedia began instituting a “flagged revisions” policy for all Wikipedia pages about living people. The widespread implementation of flagged revisions—a feature already in place on some of the more contested pages—was in response to a few publicized incidents involving false reports of celebrity and political figure deaths on the site. What this change will mean for users is that any edit they make to a living person’s biography on the site must first go through a Wikipedia volunteer editor before going live.

But some users worry that this policy will cause a slowdown in content creation, or that the volunteer editors for Wikipedia do not necessarily represent the general public and are no more qualified to approve content than anyone else. Recent data reported by users of the site found that the most active contributors to Wikipedia are not a very diverse group, with a majority being male, single and under 30, according to Noam Cohen of The New York Times.

Earlier this summer, Wikipedia banned an IP address associated with the Church of Scientology after it was thought that members of the church were entering biased information about the religion on the site. The decision called into question Wikipedia’s ability to regulate and keep neutral its content. Although Wikipedia has an arbitration committee tasked with solving just these sorts of disputes, even members of that committee have been found using multiple Wikipedia accounts—a practice frowned upon—to create content, The Independent reported in June.

Reference: Understanding Wikipedia

The findingDulcinea Web Guide to Understanding Wikipedia explains how the wiki tool works, how to use it and the potential drawbacks of a wiki.

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